For decades Americans have flocked to the cities and beaches of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, setting up homes, resorts and businesses like pins in a bowling alley.
Hurricanes such as Isabel are the bowling balls, and scientists such as Jeffrey B. Halverson spend their lives trying to understand them so forecasters can better predict where each will strike.
But even with the best satellites, airborne equipment and computer models, scientists still confront many mysteries. "It behooves us to better understand how these storms operate ... so we can get people out of harm's way," Halverson says.
Halverson is a research meteorologist at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology, operated by the University of
Maryland Baltimore County and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
He is part of a small army of experts who have labored for decades to improve hurricane science, armed with a constellation of satellites, a fleet of airplanes, batteries of radar installations and squads of ground troops with fixed and mobile technology.
Without a word of apology, they are following Isabel's every move, measuring her temperature, air pressure and rainfall, her winds and storm surges.
Their work began weeks ago as Isabel appeared in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and it intensified as she gathered her skirts into an almost perfectly symmetrical - and fearsome - Category 5 hurricane.
It hasn't always been this way.
For centuries, these storms crashed ashore with little, if any warning, and at a terrible cost.
The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was supposed to strike no more than a glancing blow. Instead, its 140-mph winds and 16-foot storm surge demolished a third of the island city of 30,000, killing as many as 12,000.
The Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 surprised residents and workers in the Florida Keys with 200-mph winds and a 25-foot storm surge. More than 200 people were killed, and 164 others were never found.
With intense development along America's coasts today, forecast accuracy is even more critical. A missed forecast can invite catastrophe. An unnecessary evacuation erodes confidence in hurricane warnings - and costs a fortune.
"Every mile [of coastline] evacuated costs $600,000 in lost economic activity per day," Halverson says.
For decades, forecasters depended on reports from remote stations and ships at sea. They got new eyes in the 1960s, when the first weather satellites gave them a high perch. But even the best of those could do little more that look down at the storm clouds and track their movement. "It's like if you put your hand on the hood of a car. You can feel how fast it's running, and how hot it is. But you couldn't look inside," Halverson says.
The latest satellites, however, use microwave technology to "see" through 10 miles of storm clouds and record images of rainfall and sea-surface patterns.
One of them, the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM), was launched in 1997 by NASA and the Japanese space agency. It transmits a microwave beam that scatters when it hits raindrops. Like TV weather radar, the reflected pattern details the hurricane's rain bands, how fast they're moving and in what direction.
"It allows you to better understand how well the storm is organized," Halverson says. "If they're nice and concentric and tightly packed, it probably tells you it's a fairly intense storm."
TRMM also enables forecasters to say where the most intense rain is falling.
Newest technologies improve prediction
Scientists: Isabel is being closely studied as part of the continuing drive for better forecasts.
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